You might not know his name, but you know his women: snow-white beauties in states of undress that engage the viewer directly, even when they’re looking away. Artist Patrick Nagel combined fashion magazine poses, Japanese woodblock techniques and angular, pastel-powered composition in his illustrations, which were mainly published in Playboy during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Since then, his less-naked works have appeared in shopping mall poster galleries, on T-shirts and as the cover art for Duran Duran’s best album, Rio. But mostly, they’ve been turned into a sort of clip art for strip-mall beauty stores.
"In Los Angeles, there are a lot of laundromats and nail and hair salons that have this pale, angular character design that's just been fading in the windows for so many years. I always passed those and wondered, Why would that make me want to go into the nail salon? Why are these people so obsessed? They always have these intense stares. And then behind the character, there's a rhombus floating by, or three squiggles. It implied a world that I wanted to go into," says Scott Gairdner, creator of Moonbeam City, an animated cop show on Comedy Central that wears its retro-futuristic fetishism right next to its badge.
Gairdner, who has written and directed videos for Conan and Funny or Die, drew inspiration from Nagel for the main character designs of Detective Dazzle Novak—a comic Sonny Crockett played by a perfectly cast Rob Lowe—and Moonbeam City's chief of police, Pizzaz Miller (Elizabeth Banks).
Pizzaz is a remarkable thing: a woman we've all seen before but have never heard speak. The model on the cover of Rio might not have the Mona Lisa's smirk, but she's thinking about something, and it's not about getting gels and a pedi. Is it possible that Patrick Nagel invented bitchy resting face?
Banks plays Pizzaz as a comic overreactor to Lowe's louche-bag Dazzle. She's a New Wave Maddie Hayes, shoulder pads and cheekbones on fleek. Seeing that nail salon stare come alive for the first time is sort of like watching Dr. Frankenstein juicing up the bride.
Nagel died of a heart attack at 38 after participating in a charity aerobics tournament in Santa Monica, California—quite possibly the hippest way to drop dead in 1984 Los Angeles. Yet his influence on illustrators and our perception of ’80s culture is as glossy and indelible as blow on white Formica. It's all over the place, but no one can seem to find it. Nagel's girls might not be on film, but at least now they're on Wednesday nights after South Park. I've seen three episodes, and so should you. Like other ’80s confections, it's best when binged.
So where does Nagel belong in the official art world? Had he not been felled by an apparently charity-mad aerobics craze, surely somewhere better. His body of work is too small and too tied to erotica and advertisers like Lucky Strike to escape the frowny face many curators make at illustration. It's a mixed bag of a legacy, to be sure.
But then, Duran Duran just released a new album, and if Nagel’s gothic Carringtons have an implied soundtrack, they're the band. The first issue of Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram, a recent Image Comics release, also features a Nagel homage. Even if he never gets an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Nagel’s work deserves more than the mall. If there's going to be a caretaker of his legacy, why shouldn't it be an animated show? Beats the crap out of nail salons.